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Poplar and Willow Take Center Stage at National Working Forum

By Betsy Fradd, WSU Extension | June 2016

Attendees of the Poplar Willow Forum walking through the poplar trees
Participants of the Poplar and Willow Forum toured the wastewater treatment plant in Woodburn, Oregon where poplar is grown with irrigated wastewater and biosolids.

“The most promising opportunities for poplar include riparian buffers, storm and wastewater treatment, and landfill/leachate recycling,” said Jud Isebrands, co-editor of the book Poplars and Willows: Trees for Society and the Environment. Isebrands spoke to over 50 people from the United States and Ireland during the three-day Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest-sponsored Managing Poplar and Willow for Environmental Benefits and the Renewable Fuels Industry Forum in Portland, Oregon. He noted how the growth rate, ease of propagation, and adaptability were some of poplar’s key benefits for phytoremediation and other environmental uses.

Increased supply chain optimization, expanded markets for biomass crops, and additional policy support were also at the forefront of the Poplar and Willow Forum.

“We wanted to bring people together who share key interests in poplar and willow to exchange knowledge and find solutions to multiple environmental problems and energy needs,” said Patricia Townsend, Director of Hardwood Biofuels Outreach and Communication. In addition to Isebrands, keynote speakers included Joe Whitworth, President of Freshwater Trust, and Chris Johnston, Project Leader of the Environment and Renewable Energy Centre. Videos of all of the key note presentations can be viewed here.

“Bringing people from diverse backgrounds was extremely informative,” said Leslie Boby, of Southern Regional Extension Forestry in Georgia and Integrated Biomass Supply Systems (IBSS). “I learned more about the varied uses for poplar and willow than I had known and also enjoyed the chance to learn about issues facing others across the country.”

Three presenters at the Poplar Willow Forum
Speakers included Daniel Cassidy from USDA NIFA, Chris Johnston of the Environment and Renewable Energy Centre in Ireland, and Tim Volk from the State University of New York.

Discussions on utilizing poplar and willow for phytoremediation, wastewater treatment, and nutrient contaminant buffers outlined how multiple environmental uses are currently applied in municipalities and businesses. A field trip to the Woodburn, Oregon wastewater treatment plant showcased the successes and challenges of the nation’s first dual wastewater reuse system. Irrigation equipment is used to apply reuse water and biosolids at the 80-acre site on poplars ranging from one to 16-years-old.

Laura Brenner Kimes, Cofounder and Director of Fresh Coast Capital, detailed how her firm sustainably redevelops vacant land into revenue-generating working landscapes and infrastructure. “We use poplar trees that reactivate empty sites into productive, park-like green space that produces a valuable timber product in 12 – 15 years,” said Kimes. “It’s a public-private partnership with the city, with both parties sharing the benefits.” Fresh Coast Capital is now working in seven cities including Gary, Indiana and Flint, Michigan, and has over 70 acres of tree farms installed or contracted for this spring.

Other benefits of poplar and willow were discussed, including how biofuels can replace petroleum fuels and help reverse carbon pollution. Participants also considered the possibility of biochemical production being the next economical stepping stone for biorefineries due to the current lost cost of fossil fuels.

Moving forward with renewable fuels implementation and use is exciting and challenging. Participants see the need for increased public awareness, support, and funding. Other solutions included reliable, long-term policy mandates and ways to monetize the environmental value of poplar and willow.

“Obtaining environmental services from nature is a complex endeavor and the new biofuels economy will be reliant on this greater systems thinking,” said Boby. “Linking people from multiple backgrounds is the way to move forward.”

View all presentations from the Poplar/Willow Forum